Approaches to Legal Ontologies

Volume 1 of the series Law, Governance and Technology Series pp 235-258


Towards an Ontological Foundation for Services Science: The Legal Perspective

  • Roberta FerrarioAffiliated withLaboratory for Applied Ontology, ISTC-CNR Email author 
  • , Nicola GuarinoAffiliated withLaw Department, European University Institute
  • , Meritxell Fernández-BarreraAffiliated withLaw Department, European University InstituteUAB Institute of Law and Technology, Autonomous University of Barcelona

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As a growing number of economic transactions tend to happen in the Web, their legal implications and assumptions need to be made explicit in the proper way, in order to facilitate interoperability across different normative systems, encourage transparency towards the end users and ultimately promote trust in automated services. In particular, potentially ambiguous terms (and often apparently unproblematic ones) mentioned in these transactions need to be carefully analyzed in order to clarify the distinctions between slightly different meanings, describing hidden relationships and implicit constraints. One of these terms, highly overloaded nowadays, is “service”. Indeed, the very fact that services are now offered through the Web, and that the notion of service is at the core of a wholly new organizational paradigm—service-oriented systems—suggests the need to carefully (re)consider this notion. In this paper we shall attempt this analysis under the perspective of formal ontology, with a special attention to the legal aspects. The approach we take is that services are complex temporal entities (events) based on the central notion of commitment. Analyzing services as complex events allows us to clarify the relationships between the various agents that participate to these events playing specific roles, with specific responsibilities; moreover, this analysis explains a classic economic (and legal) distinction between services and goods, based on the fact that goods are both transactable and transferable, while services are transactable but not transferable. Assuming that transferability is intended as transferability of ownership, we argue that the ontological reason why services are not transferable is exactly because they are events: you cannot own an event, since if owning implies being in control of temporal behaviour, then, strictly speaking (at the token level), the temporal behaviour of an event is already determined, and changing it would result in a different event. So events are not transferable simply because they are not “ownable”. Since services are events, they are not transferable as well. Of course, this implies a shared understanding of what ownership, responsibility, duty, right etc. mean, and the paper is a first effort in this direction.